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Full text of "One day with Whistler"

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5 7^38 

X*. ONE DAY 
WITH WHffs^L 




FREDERICK KEPPEL 



reprinted, by permission, from 
"the reader" of januarv/ 1904 




FREDERICK KEPPEL & CO. 

NEW YORK 

191 1 




Portrait of Whistler 

From the drawing by Paul Rajon 



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ONE DAY WITH WHISTLER 



WHISTLER died in London on the 17th 
of July, 1903, yet the more or less 
elaborate articles which have already been 
printed about him may be numbered by hun- 
dreds. Nor is the fascinating subject of this 
extraordinary personality by any means ex- 
hausted. More than one formal biography 
has appeared, and the monumental work of 
Air. and Airs. Pennell was published in the 
year 1908. The dual personality of Whistler 
— as a supreme master in art and as a su- 
preme master of brilliant satirical wit — will 
continue to employ "the pen of the ready 
writer" for a long time to come. 

If the old-time author's apologia for the 
appearance of some new book or treatise were 
still the fashion, I could make mine by simply 
stating that the present article contains noth- 
ing on the subject which has been printed 



before ; seeing that it is the "unvarnished 
tale" (also the hitherto unpublished tale) of 
Whistler's intercourse with me and mine with 
him. 

Our first meeting, long years ago, took 
place at his rooms in Tite Street. Chelsea. 
My errand did not concern myself at all: I 
simply undertook to deliver to him a picture 
entrusted to me at Whistler's request by an 
absent friend of his who told me in French 
parlance the master would be visible from 
nine to ten o'clock ever}" morning. I reached 
his house at about half past nine and was 
admitted by a servant who showed me into 
a reception room in which the prevailing color 
scheme was a pale and delicate yellow. The 
room at first looked bare and empty, yet its 
general effect was both novel and pleasing. 
Having sent up my card, upon which I had 
written a memorandum stating the cause of 
my visit. I soon heard a light step, and a mo- 
ment later I set eyes on Whistler for the first 
time. It was his humor not to enter his own 
reception room, but to remain at the thresh- 
old glaring at me through his monocle and 
holding his watch open in his hand. There 
he was — the Whistler of so many portraits 
and so many caricatures — a slender, alert 
little man. but so gracefully proportioned 



that, as he stood framed in his own doorway, 
it was not easy to determine whether he was 
big, middle-sized, or small. All the external 
attributes or trade-marks were in evidence: 
the white lock above the middle of his fore- 
head, carefully segregated from the black 
curls around it; the monocle stuck in his right 
eye and protected from breakage by a thin 
black cord which ran through a hole drilled 
near the edge of the crystal; the aggressive 
cravat and the very long black coat. Sud- 
denly, with a disconcerting little detonation 
caused by the abrupt parting of his closed lips 
and with a simultaneous grimace, he caused 
the eye-glass to bounce outward from his 
eye, and having, like the patriarch Job, 
"opened his mouth," he said: "Now, I have 
just four minutes to spare: what is it that 
you want?" Let me here confess that I felt 
somewhat nettled at this unexpected reception 
— seeing that I had come long miles out of 
my way solely to oblige an absent friend of 
his and, incidentally, to oblige Whistler him- 
self — and so I set myself to break down the 
repellent pose which he saw fit to assume. 
Having delivered to him the little picture 
which I had brought I gave him no immedi- 
ate opening to snub me further. With this 
intent I talked about the friend who had sent 



me to him ; I described to him the fine posi- 
tion in which his own contribution to the 
Paris Salon had been hung; I told him some 
flattering things which had been said by the 
right sort of people about it; I gave him 
news, which I knew would interest him, of 
other friends of his, and, like Browning's hero, 
I kept up "any noise bad or good," until he so 
far unbent as to enter the room where I was. 
Abruptly he then put the question to me: 
"Are you fond of pictures?" To this I made 
answer: "Such pictures as may be seen here, 
yes." "Come to the studio," said he; and 
thus began a memorable day which only ended 
when he had to go out to dine at eight in the 
evening, and even then he delayed — calmly 
remarking that people always waited dinner 
for him, no matter how late he came. This 
long day was passed in the studio except when 
we adjourned to the dining-room for lunch, 
where I remember that the table was deco- 
rated with yellow flowers and that the dishes 
were hollow, the hollow space being filled 
with boiling water for the purpose of keeping 
the eatables hot. 

But it was in his studio that Whistler was 
at his brightest and best. Surely never was 
a man so far removed from being common- 
place. His alert wit kept flashing like sum- 

6 



mer lightning, and the pronouncement which 
Dr. Samuel Johnson delivered on his friend 
David Garrick might with equal force be ap- 
plied to Whistler: "Sir, for sprightly conver- 
sation he is the foremost man in the world." 
Much of his talk that day was of a denuncia- 
tory character. Some eminent personages 
were severely castigated, but the vials of his 
bitterest wrath were poured on the devoted 
heads of certain prominent artists and more 
especially on those who painted portraits. 
While speaking on this subject he gave ex- 
pression to one opinion which seems to be so 
sound and right that it should be recorded 
here: ''To paint what is called a great por- 
trait in England," said he, "the artist must 
overload everything with strong contrasts of 
violent colors. His success with the rich ig- 
norant public is assured if only he succeeds 
in setting his colors shouting against each 
other. Go to the exhibition at the Royal 
Academy and see what is called the picture 
of the year— Mr. A's portrait of Mr. B. You 
can easily find it by seeing the crowd that 
stands staring at it all day long. Mix with 
this crowd and get near to the picture; fill 
your eye with it ; then turn round and look at 
the faces of the living spectators, — how quiet 
in tone they are! If A's portrait is right, 



surely even - living man and woman you see 
in the crowd must be wrong!" 

From all this depressing pessimism he rap- 
idly turned to another subject which he pro- 
ceeded to treat with enthusiastic optimism; 
for he began to talk of his own works. His 
delight in these was as frank and complete as 
the delight of some little boy who has tri- 
umphantly constructed a satisfactory mud pie. 

There was standing on a perpendicular 
easel in the studio his superb portrait of the 
violinist, Sarasate — the same picture which 
afterward created such a sensation at the 
Paris Salon. The delighted artist conducted 
me through a doorway which faced the pic- 
ture and, further on, to the end of a long 
corridor. There, turning round, we gazed on 
the picture framed in a vista of corridor and 
doorway. Laying his hand on my shoulder 
he said to me: "Now, is n't it beautiful?" 
"It certainly is," I answered. "No," said 
he, "but is n't it beautiful?" "It is indeed," 
I replied. Then raising his voice to a scream, 
with a not too wicked blasphemy, and bring- 
ing his hand down upon his knee with a bang 
so as to give superlative emphasis to the last 

word of his sentence, he cried, " 

it! Is n't it beautiful?" If I could do no 
other thing so well as Whistler, I could at 

8 



least shout as loud as he could scream, so 
turning to him and adopting his little "swear 
word" (as a quotation, of course) I shouted 

into his face " it, it is!" This 

third declaration seemed to satisfy him, and 
so we returned to the studio. 

More manifestations of his delight in his 
own work were to follow: He had just re- 
ceived the proof sheets of his now famous 
book, "The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, " 
and he asked me to read some of it aloud so 
that he could "hear how it sounded." Now 
I believe it is not possible for anyone to read 
a piece of fine literature aloud, and to do it 
well, unless he has read it before and knows 
what is coming in the text; and so I was not 
at all surprised when, after I had read a few 
pages to him, he called out "Stop! You are 
murdering it! Let me read it to you." He 
was quite right; I was murdering it! So we 
changed places. He read his own book ad- 
mirably, and kept at it for about two hours. 
My enjoyment was, however, interrupted by 
a characteristic incident: His man-servant 
entered the studio: "Well?" said Whistler. 
"Lady Somebody, sir," said the servant (she 
was one of the great ladies of the British 
peerage). "Where is she?" "In her car- 
riage at the door, sir." Whistler took no 

9 



further notice of his servitor but resumed the 
reading of his proof sheets to me, and the 
puzzled footman, who was standing behind 
his master's back and facing me, shook his 
head slowly up and down, and — like Long- 
fellow's Arabs — "silently stole away." Thus 
the reading went on for quite ten minutes 
longer, and the reader's sole auditor fidgeted 
more and more, till, realizing how deadly 
cold it was on that March day, I called out 
to him, "I beg your pardon, Mr. Whistler, 
but I think I overheard your servant telling 
you that a lady was waiting to see you." 
"Oh," said he, "let her wait, let her wait, — 
I 'm ynobbed with these people!" Then he 
went on reading for fully fifteen minutes 
more, and after that (his voice was getting 
tired, I dare say) he condescended to go 
down-stairs and receive her shivering lady- 
ship. 

Another incident of that day was the visit 
of a foreign artist, an old acquaintance, with 
whom Whistler had not — as yet — quarreled. 
He was received with genuine cordiality, and, 
artist-like, he ran round the studio looking 
at everything. One small picture seemed to 
charm him especially, and he said, "Now that 
is one of your good ones." "Don't look at it, 
dear boy," said Whistler, airily, "it 's not fin- 

10 



ished." "Finished!" said the visitor. "Why, 
it is the most carefully finished picture of 
yours that I have ever seen." "Don't look 
at it!" persisted Whistler. "You are doing 
injustice to } r ourself, you are doing injustice 
to my picture — and you are doing injustice to 
me!" The visitor looked bewildered, when 
Whistler in a theatrical tone cried out, "Stop, 
I '11 finish it now!" Then he procured a very 
small camel's-hair brush, fixed it on a long 
and slender handle, mixed a little speck of 
paint on his palette, dipped the tip of his 
brush into it, and then, standing off from his 
picture, and with the action of a fencer with 
his rapier he lunged forward and touched the 
picture in one spot with his pigment. "Now 
it 's finished," said he. "Now you may look 
at it!" This was all highly dramatic, and 
indeed very well acted, but as in the case of 
some stage plays, the final act of Whistler's 
performance proved to be an anti-climax: 
the foreign artist took his leave, but finding 
that he had left his umbrella behind him, 
called for it next day. The servant, recog- 
nizing him, told him that Mr. Whistler had 
gone out for the day, but invited him to go to 
the studio and seek his umbrella. He went 
there and found it, but also took the oppor- 
tunity of having one more look at the picture 

1 1 



which had been "finished" for his special 
benefit the day before; and then he saw that 
the little dab of wet paint which Whistler 
had so dramatically put on he had afterward 
scrupulously wiped off again! 

The kindly old Latin maxim which exhorts 
us to "Speak nothing but good concerning the 
dead" is appropriate for the millions of ordi- 
nary nobodies who disappear and are forgot- 
ten; but historical verity is most essential in 
the case of eminent or notable personalities 
whom the world will not forget. Thomas 
Carlyle was one such man and Lord Byron 
was another; but Mr. Froude so '"edited" 
Carlyle's diary that no one is satisfied, and 
Thomas Moore suppressed Byron's diary 
altogether. Thus these two eminent men are 
not known to posterity as they each had de- 
liberately planned to be known, and a serious 
danger of the same kind threatens the mem- 
ory of Whistler. He was no coward — what- 
ever other faults and eccentricities he may 
have manifested — and his life was consistent 
(in an inconsistent way) from first to last. 

Yet some of the biographical notices which 
have already appeared try to make of him a 
sort of milk-and-water saint. This falsifica- 
tion may possibly do honor to the hearts of 
these writers — but certainly not to their 

12 



heads! — and Whistler would never have ap- 
proved of it. He took infinite pains, indeed, 
to let the world see his character as it actu- 
ally was, and those who knew him best 
would agree with me in the opinion that all 
posthumous records of him should be written 
in the spirit of Othello's manly request when, 
knowing that he was about to die, he said: 

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, 
Nor set down aught in malice. 

It is in this spirit that I now venture to give, 
as dispassionately as I can, the results of my 
long years of study of this extraordinary "hu- 
man document," Whistler; and if I do not 
render my verdict worthless by covering him 
over with an indiscriminate coat of "white- 
wash," I have the precedent of his own book, 
"The Gentle Art of Making Enemies," to 
warrant me in telling the truth without fear 
or favor. Indeed, I shall not go so far as 
Whistler went, for in that book of his (with 
its felicitous title) he did not scruple to print 
numbers of letters from persons still living, 
and certainly without the consent of the sev- 
eral writers. It is quite another and an al- 
lowable thing to print private letters after 
the writers of them are dead; and many de- 

T 3 



lightful books are made almost entirely from 
this source. 

Whistler has often been called the greatest 
painter of his day — and he was always called 
the greatest etcher. If this proud position 
was accorded to him too tardily it was mainly 
through his own fault. It was his humor to 
antagonize the world in general; naturally 
the consequences reacted upon himself. The 
same cause would have brought about the 
same results in the case of Corot or Millet 
or Sargent or any other man of genius, for 
it was Whistler himself who deliberately 
made the hard bed in which he had to lie for 
many a year. ''To the froward thou wilt 
show thyself froward" remains as true to-day 
as when it was written long ages ago. 

One writer makes the statement that 
"there never has been and probably never 
shall be another man 'like Whistler." As to 
the future — we cannot tell ; as to his own 
times, a satirical London reviewer wittily 
calls a whole group of artists "mainly penny- 
Whistlers," because they aped both the mas- 
ter's personality and his art, and in conse- 
quence were of no more value than a child's 
penny-whistle. But it is remarkable that no 
writer has as yet pointed out the strong re- 
semblance between the man Whistler and the 

14 



man Benvenuto Cellini. Whistler flourished 
some three and a half centuries later than 
the famous Florentine sculptor and gold- 
smith, who was born in the year 1500; each 
of the two has left an extraordinary book in 
which the author is the extravagantly vaunted 
hero ; each of them spent much of his life in 
waging conflicts of his own making, and each 
records his own exploits with the most com- 
placent self-satisfaction. 

Mr. John Addington Symonds — the trans- 
lator, apologist, and vindicator of Cellini — 
feels constrained to write of the Florentine: 
"Great though his talents were he vastly 
overrated them, and set a monstrously ex- 
aggerated value on his works of art. The 
same qualities made him a fierce and bitter 
rival; he could not believe that anyone with 
whom he came into collision had the right to 
stand beside him." Does not this extract 
make us almost feel that we are reading a 
paragraph from some current biography of 
Whistler? 

But notwithstanding these self-created 
drawbacks his genius as an artist, coupled 
with his brilliant powers of pleasing (when 
he chose to please), resulted in the fact that 
Whistler's society was eagerly courted by the 
most eminent artistic and intellectual men and 



r 5 






women of his day and generation. His fac- 
ulty for inspiring people with enthusiasm for 
himself and for his pictures was simply mar- 
vellous. This effect which he wrought on his 
devotees was wittily described by the Paris 
writer. M. Henri Beraldi, as "the malady of 
Whistlerium Tremens" and (while it lasted) 
it was naturally delightful; but the day was 
sure to come when Whistler would suddenly 
"turn and rend" his former friend, and after 
that the friend was never forgiven. So often 
did this happen that it would be easy to make 
a tabular list of say a hundred names of more 
or less distinguished and amiable people who 
once stood high in the Whistlerian esteem, 
but of whom nearly everyone had the mis- 
fortune unconsciously to wound the master's 
enormous vanity, and so to be written down 
in his black books with indelible ink. Yet 
even in these sad circumstances Whistler 
never allowed his own interest to modify his 
wrath against the unconscious offender; in- 
deed, if it was his special interest — monetary 
or otherwise — to maintain good relations 
with any man, that was the man of all others 
whom he was surest to "clapperclaw!" 

Shakespeare tells us that "troops of friends" 
are one of the blessings which should accom- 
pany a happy old age, and Whistler's last 

16 



years would have been desolate indeed were 
it not that a few — a very few — faithful souls 
clung to him to the end. I have particularly 
in mind an American couple residing in Lon- 
don, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Pennell, who acted 
as his very efficient guardian angels to the 
last; "and all for love, and nothing for re- 
ward" — as old Edmund Spenser has it. 
Theirs was the untiring fidelity which "bear- 
eth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all 
things, endureth all things!" 

If I were asked why it was that Whistler 
so assiduously practised "the gentle art of 
making enemies" (instead of the still gentler 
art of making friends) I should answer: pri- 
marily because he liked it! He has on occa- 
sion recounted to me w T ith high glee the de- 
tails of one or another of his quarrels, and 
it must be admitted that he was a brilliant 
fighter; but such little matters as the logic 
or the equity of the question in dispute never 
troubled him at all. His faculty for "mak- 
ing the worse appear the better reason" w T as 
quite extraordinary, and often he first put 
himself entirely in the wrong and then fought 
a valiant — if a losing battle. 

Another of his peculiarities was the his- 
trionic cast of his nature. Queen Victoria 
once complained of her prime minister, Glad- 

17 



stone. "He harangues me as if I were a 
public meeting." Similarly, Whistler was for- 
ever performing as if he were playing a com- 
edy before an audience, and it was never easy 
to determine when he was in serious earnest 
and when he was only "poking fun." This 
same theatrical cast of his mind led him, 
years ago, to change his own name — for 
Whistler had no more right to assume the 
middle name of McNeill than the present 
writer would have to appropriate the middle- 
name of Plantagenet or Hohenzollern. He 
was baptized James Abbott Whistler. This 
fact concerning his legal name is not known 
to many, but there is incontestable evidence 
of it; and in his later years there was no 
surer way of infuriating him than by giving 
him the name which he received in baptism. 
The poet Swinburne committed this unpar- 
donable sin in the dedication of one of his 
poems. Another of these inconvenient little 
matters about which Whistler loved to mys- 
tify and befog the public is the fact that 
he was born on the ioth of July, 1834, m 
Worthen Street, Lowell, Mass. Such a stub- 
born fact as this, however, did not deter him 
from swearing, during the Sir William Eden 
lawsuit in Paris, that he was born in Russia! 
But in Whistler's case, as in the case of very 

18 



imaginative little children (girls oftener than 
boys), we should be very careful of condemn- 
ing them for deliberate lying when they only 
dramatize a series of imaginary things until 
at last they come to believe them. 

People have often suggested to me that, in 
view of his eccentricities, Whistler must have 
been a little wrong in the head. Not he ! I 
have never known a man whose intellect was 
clearer or more alert. His memory also was 
very accurate — more especially with regard 
to all the ins and outs of his numerous quar- 
rels. 

Still another of his characteristics was his 
way of imparting a look of careless precipi- 
tation to his later paintings and prints, — the 
truth being that, to the very last, he took in- 
finite care with every detail of his work, and 
everyone who has sat to him for a portrait 
can testify that the master almost killed his 
sitter with fatigue by reason of his scrupu- 
lous exactions and repetitions. So long as he 
was at work on a picture he was intensely in 
earnest, and it was only in his intercourse 
with his fellow-men that he assumed the role 
of poser and performer. He would very 
rarely answer a letter, but, like Napoleon, 
generally assumed that a letter would answer 
itself through the subsequent event. One of 

19 



the last friendly epistles which I received 
from him was in acknowledgment of a cut- 
ting from the New York Tribune, which I 
had sent him and which contained the an- 
nouncement of his own marriage. This para- 
graph, being printed at the top of one of the 
pages of the newspaper, I utilized the inch of 
blank margin above by writing on it the fol- 
lowing verse : 

One Whistler more, one Godwin less, 

Two Artists wed this dav; 
Long mav you each the other bless, 

So prays your friend F. K. 

But the inevitable hour was to come when 
Whistler — like some supposedly tamed wild 
animal — must suddenly and unprovokedly 
turn and bite. In my case it happened in this 
wise : Two well-known American Librarians 
had collaborated in preparing a pamphlet 
which was entitled "Guide to the Stucy of 
James Abbott McNeill Whistler." It was 
published by the University of the State of 
New York at Albany and bore on its title- 
page the names of the joint authors. The 
sole motive of both the compilers and the 
Regents of the L niversity was to do honor 
to Whistler, but it appears that in the little 
book the incense burned was not pungent 

20 



enough to suit the nostrils of the illustrious 
subject. Three copies of the pamphlet were 
sent to me. One of them I kept and the re- 
maining two I sent respectively to Mr. Joseph 
Pennell and Mr. Ernest Brown in London. 
If I had had a fourth I would have sent it to 
Whistler himself in the belief that it would 
have given him pleasure. Six months after- 
ward I arrived in London and was told by 
Lady Seymour Haden (Whistler's half-sister) 
that "her brother Jimmie" had buried his wife 
that same day. I had known and esteemed 
the deceased lady, and so I at once wrote to 
Whistler telling him that his sister had just 
told me of his bereavement and assuring him 
of my deep sympathy. My letter made men- 
tion of this and of nothing else. Next day 
(the day after his wife's funeral) I received 
from him a registered letter, the envelope 
bordered in deepest black and sealed in black 
wax with his mystic emblem or device of a 
sort of Whistlerized butterfly. I had not ex- 
pected so early a reply to my letter of con- 
dolence, but when I came to read what he 
had written to me I certainly stared at it in 
amazement. Here follows his letter, and I 
do not think that in his published book there 
is a more brilliant specimen of characteristic 
abusive Whistlerism than this : 

21 



St. Judes Cottage, 
Heath End, Hampstead. 

Sir: I must not let the occasion of your 
being in town pass without acknowledging the 
gratuitous zeal with which you have done 
your best to further the circulation of one 
of the most curiously malignant inuendoes, 
in the way of scurrilous half-assertions, it has 
been my fate hitherto to meet. 

Mr. Brown very properly sent on to me 
the pamphlet you had promptly posted to him. 

Mr. Pennell also, I rind, you had carefully 
supplied with a copy — and I have no doubt 
that, with the untiring energy of the "busy" 
one, you have smartly placed the pretty work 
in the hands of many another before this. 

Personally I am grateful to this activity of 
yours — for there is no obscurity into which 
the journalist will not, in time, pry for his 
paragraph — and, thanks to your unexampled 
perseverance, I have, though in a circuitous 
and doubtless unintended way, been enabled 
now to deal with the authorities of the Amer- 
ican College, upon whose shelves is allowed 
to be officially catalogued this grotesque slan- 
der of a distinguished and absent countryman. 

Had you sent to me direct, and to me 
alone, the libellous little book, it would have 

22 



been my pleasant duty to have thanked you 
for the kind courtesy — and to have recog- 
nized, in the warning given, the right impulse 
of an honorable man. 

I am, Sir, Your obedient servant, 

J. McNeill Whistler. 

Two days later I got an opening to return 
his undeserved blow; but all that followed is 
of small interest to the public, who care very 
much about everything concerning Whistler, 
but very little about the lesser people who 
sometimes successfully repelled his unjust 
attacks. 

It is obvious that when I received the letter 
just cited, all my friendly intercourse with 
this extraordinary man came to an end. 

Frederick Keppel. 



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